It’s interesting to watch what happens with popular musicians as they age. Some disappear after their time of stardom and then reappear and do dinosaur tours when their demographic hits the nostalgia stage (any number of hair metal bands). Some stay in the spotlight ridiculously pretending they’re still 20 years old (Mick Jagger). Some come out of retirement and humiliate themselves with embarrassing Super Bowl shows that are all about the money-grab (The Who). And some, like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and many jazz musicians, continue to make vibrant music that grows increasingly rich and deep with age. Neil Finn and Crowded House fall into this last group.
At one time it didn’t look like it would turn out this way. Crowded House officially ended their career with an extraordinary live concert at Sydney’s Opera House in 1996 which is captured on the terrific live album Farewell to the World which was also separately released as a DVD. Nine years later Paul Hester, the band’s drummer, took his own life after years of battling depression. In 2007 a new album, Time on Earth, was released under the Crowded House name. The newly formulated group combined original members Neil Finn (guitars, piano, vocals), Mark Hart (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Nick Seymour (bass, vocals) with Matt Sherrod (drums, vocals). Most of the tracks on Time on Earth were originally intended for a Neil Finn solo CD and the album was drenched in Finn and the surviving band members coming to grips with the loss of Hester. It could easily have been the final goodbye.
But it wasn’t. Intriguer is a full blown Crowded House album made by a complete band making their own music and it’s very, very good. Crowded House were always known for Finn’s exceptional song-writing skills. The good news is that he hasn’t lost any of it. The better news is that his personal maturity has produced lyrical maturity rather than desperate grasping for youth. Finn’s songs are matched every step of the way by the band’s musicianship and elegant vocal work. As a quartet, Crowded House play and sing together like the consummate professionals they are. No grand standing, no ego trips, just well-crafted songs beautifully played and sang.
Intriguer comes with a DVD that contains a video for “Saturday Sun”, 8 tracks recorded more or less live (it looks like different takes were expertly combined) at the band’s studio in New Zealand, and two tracks recorded live at the Auckland Townhall which contains an amazing pipe organ. The version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at the Townhall is not to be missed.
When I saw that Crowded House had a new release scheduled for July I was both excited and worried. Excited because I really like the band; worried because so many bands come back with shitty albums hoping to suck cash out of the accounts of fans who want to pretend they’re still as cool as they think they were back in the day. When I first heard Intriguer it sounded good but first impressions of CDs can, and often do, change. They changed for Intriguer – after many listens I like it more than I did at the start. It’s a grower. If you’re new to Crowded House, Intriguer is as good a place to start as any. Long time fans of the band are going to thoroughly enjoy this album. The band they loved is back and just as good, if not better, than ever. Crowded House isn’t trying to recapture the past, they’re playing music that lives and breathes right here, right now.
Picking a couple of songs from Intriguer is impossible. Here are two, it could have easily been any one of a half-dozed others.
“Twice if You’re Lucky”
Today was a long, and possibly decisive, stage as far as the top two positions in the GC in the Tour de France so I only had time to hear Crowded House’s new album Intriguer once. Based on that single hearing, my response was very positive. This one could be a solid winner.
Everyone who has spent any time listening to music knows how deceptive first listenings can be. Sometimes an album sounds terrific the first time or two and you quickly lose interest. Other times an album sounds like nothing at first and grows into a long-term favorite. And sometimes you get it the first time you hear it, good or bad.
Keeping that in mind, Intriguer sure sounded fine the first time out. Some bands go on and on cranking out the same old thing looking increasingly ridiculous singing songs for 20 year olds when they’re in their 60s. Others reunite for nostalgia cash ins and embarrass themselves with cringe worthy Super Bowl half-time shows. However some musicians and bands continue to make vibrant music for decades. Although not easy for anyone, it’s a bit easier for an individual to pull this off than for a band. Crowded House may be doing it.
It’s early days for Intriguer yet, but first impressions are good. Stay tuned.
It’s all good – here is the review of Intriguer.
“Time on Earth” should come with a warning label for people who are more about being fans of the band than fans of the music. It’s nominally a Crowded House album but the reformulated Crowded House only does four of the fourteen songs on the CD. The rest of the tracks on the album were intended to be part of Neil Finn’s next solo album. However, during the course of the recording Finn began to work again with Crowded House’s bass player Nick Seymour and keyboard and guitar player Mark Hart. It went well and they decided to get back together with Matt Sherrod taking the drum chair formerly occupied by Paul Hester.
For fans of the music the paucity of “official” Crowded House numbers won’t be a problem because once again Neil Finn demonstrates the exquisite pop songcraft that was always Crowded House’s greatest strength. Many pop songwriters work hard their entire careers to write the kind of song that Finn can apparently turn out by the handful whenever he wants. Whether he is writing for Crowded House, his solo albums, or the duo albums he’s done with his brother Tim, Finn never fails to produce beautifully crafted pop songs that sink their hooks in either immediately or several listens down the line and never let go. “Time on Earth” is no exception. Whatever it is that ennables people to write great songs, Neil Finn has it to burn.
In 2005 Crowded House’s drummer, Paul Hester, took his own life. His spirit lies softly over this album from the title of the CD, to the cover art of a blue monster gobbling up a man amidst a drab world constucted of empty words (Hester suffered from depression), to the lyrics of so many of the songs, to the simple dedication “In Memory of Paul Hester”. Thus, the album is more somber than what you might expect from previous Crowded House or Neil Finn albums. That’s not to say “Time on Earth” is filled with the droning dirges that regularly appear on CDs by the indie-rock melancholy drama queens (who always seem to be guys – what’s up with that?). It’s not at all, but there is grief here. There is also, if not healing, then at least coming to grips with the loss of an old, loved and difficult friend. By facing the devastating sorrow that suicide almost always leaves in its wake, “Time on Earth” is ultimately a CD that harbors hope for the future most importantly for Finn, Seymour and Hart and also for the many fans of Crowded House who would love to see them give it another try. If you’ve enjoyed Neil Finn in any of his previous incarnations, you will find something to like here.
In 1996 Crowded House called it quits but before they went they got the original band back together for one final concert they called Farewell to the World which they performed in front of the magnificent Sydney Opera House. A CD and a DVD of the event were finally released last year. This note on the DVD is a followup to our earlier review of the CD which can be checked for more info on the music and the gig.
The Farewell to the World DVD is a straightforward concert film. Crowded House walks onstage, kicks ass for two hours, hugs all around, and walks off. No artsy fartsy cinema tricks, no interspersed interviews, no they-influenced-us-sooo-much blather from other musicians or bombastic pontificating from pointy heads on the band’s cultural significance. Just two hours of great music. Nice.
The DVD comes with three soundtracks: the original stereo mix, a new stereo mix, and a 5.1 dts mix. The new stereo mix widens the soundstage and doubles the front stereo mix in the rear channels. Of the two stereo mixes, the newer one sounds fuller and richer. The 5.1 surround dts mix sounds the best of the three. However, all of the mixes on the DVD are markedly inferior to the sound on the CD. Although the CD is a stereo mix, the lows are much fuller and the highs are much clearer. The overall sound is much richer and more detailed on the CD.
The DVD also has a commentary track done by the musicians which I did not listen to and a second disc which I did not get from Netflix and so can’t comment on. If you are a fan of Crowded House the DVD is well worth your time as watching the band play the gig more than makes up for the decline in sound quality. If all you want is the music, the CD is the better option.
Music from this concert can be heard on Tuned In To Music Podcast 004 – Live, In Concert
Crowded House often seemed to be more untogether than together. Formed by Neil Finn out of the ashes of Split Enz when his brother, Tim, left the group, Crowded House had a career that was rocky even by rock-band standards. Members were continually leaving and joining the group, albums would be released, go nowhere, and then six months later would explode, and so on. Their self-titled first album was a huge hit in the US but didn’t arouse much interest in most of the rest of the world. Their third album, Woodface wherein Tim briefly rejoined his brother in the band, was a huge hit in the UK and most of the rest of Europe but did zip in the US. Throughout all of this they were consistent megastars in their home countries of New Zealand and Australia. In June of 1996 they released a greatest hits compilation that entered the UK and Australian charts at #1 at which point they promptly announced they were breaking up. They then proceeded to do a whole series of final concerts.
They scheduled what was really going to be their final concert for Saturday, November 23 1996. The gig was to take place on the steps of the gorgeous Sydney Opera House. It was going to be recorded and filmed and the proceeds were to be donated to the Sydney Children’s Hospital Fund. Most of that happened, but not as expected, which I suppose isn’t all that surprising given the history of this band. Turned out the weather on the 23rd was terrible and they had to postpone the gig until the following day. This created a problem for a number of their avid fans who had flown to Australia for the Saturday concert and had to fly back out on Sunday. So what did the band do? Without the movie people, without the recording truck, and without a lot of fanfare they went to a venue that was open and played virtually the entire planned concert for the people who couldn’t make it the next day. How do you not love a band like that?
The next day over 120,000 people showed up and Crowded House played a concert that has become legendary among their fans. This is the recording of that gig and it’s very good. Neil Finn has won a well deserved reputation as a master craftsman of the art of pop song writing and there is hardly better evidence of that reputation than the songs played here which cover the entire range of Crowded House’s ten year career. If you’re familiar with Finn’s work, you expect good songs. What is, perhaps, more surprising is how well the band plays together and how hard they can rock. Drummer Paul Hester had left the group two years earlier and was afraid he wouldn’t be able to anchor the band before an audience this large. He needn’t have worried. The gig takes up two discs and the band doesn’t let down once.
The band is well recorded. Unfortunately, the crowd is not. There’s over 120K people out there, they know these songs and they are singing along but you can barely hear them. For the most part this isn’t a problem but during those tracks where the band gives the crowd lines to sing it makes artificial dead spots out of what were probably emotional highs at the show. It’s a shame and the only reason I can think of why it has taken over ten years to release the concert on CD.
Neil Finn is quoted in the liner notes as saying “We broke up better than anything else we ever did really.” The evidence is here . . .
. . . . . but wait, the band got back together and released Intriguer in 2010.
Music from this concert can be heard on Tuned In To Music Podcast 004 – Live, In Concert